Song Man, Dance Man at Seven Angels Theatre

David Begelman

When the advance notices for Song Man, Dance Man describe Jon Peterson’s one man show as a tour de force, it’s no exaggeration. This performer, who conceived and wrote his own show, provides the audience with a happy meld of triple threat capabilities, including a voice untarnished by off-pitch singing, as well as one that builds to thrilling crescendos at the end of several numbers.

As a hoofer and tap dancer, Mr. Peterson’s abilities are impressive, and comport well with the style of the many stars who, like George M. Cohan, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Sammy Davis, Jr., he emulates with a gift for stage movement that has you on the edge of your seat. Other legends, like Bobby Darin and Anthony Newley, are also served up, although more as song men with reputations for iconic stage presence, rather than sheer dancing ability.

The show’s song and dance routines are only one aspect of Mr. Peterson’s package of treats. He also supplies running anecdotes about the foibles of each of the stars he presents—sometimes with no holds barred. Gene Kelly, it turns out, was often a cruel taskmaster with other performers on the set of his MGM productions, while Fred Astaire had a self-effacing personality, only rising to the occasion when it came to ridding a film of glitzy camera work: “Either the camera will dance or I will!” exclaimed the matchless trouper. Anthony Newley’s dalliances with women were legendary, while Bobby Darin’s bout with congestive heart failure came right after he learned that his “sister” Nina was actually his mother.

Mr. Peterson has one number following another at a pace that makes you wonder where he gets the energy to bring them off. Surprisingly, his voice never gives out, and you are hard put to detect any breathlessness underneath his bravura performance.

Chosen numbers strike a nostalgic note for the audience. They include, but are hardly limited to, George M. Cohan’s, Give My Regards To Broadway, Fred Astaire’s rendition of It Only Happens When I Dance With You, Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain (with hat and umbrella), Sammy Davis’s interpretation of the Walter Marks hit, I’ve Got to Be Me, Bobby Darin’s take on Kurt Weil’s Mack the Knife,and Anthony Newley’s Just Once in a Lifetime. Goods in abundance.

Mr. Peterson’s storehouse of memorabilia is hardly limited to stories about performers dished up in a flatfooted way. There’s plenty of humor to boot, like the anecdote about the star who remarked after his wife fell down a wishing well: “I didn’t know those things worked!” Mr. Peterson, a Brit, relates how London was the “center of everything” in the sixties, although “it didn’t make the food any better.” English restaurateurs, Mr. Peterson recalls, apologized by saying, “Sorry, we’re open.”

Criticisms of Mr. Peterson’s one-man performance and script have to be on the nit-picking side—for obvious reasons, given his dazzling showmanship. While his tap-dancing is exceptional, it’s ironic that one of his anecdotes involves faulting ballet dancers in Covent Garden like Robert Helpmann (of the Royal Ballet and The Red Shoes fame) and his entourage who, unlike the brilliant stars Peterson celebrates, disappointingly “never say anything.” Only they, unlike Mr. Peterson, have less trouble with turns and pirouettes than he on occasion seems to have.

Mr. Peterson’s show is a movable feast, although the script has a tendency to push delights past the point at which we expect the curtain to come down. When the audience is on the verge of applauding the seeming end of his rousing display of talent, yet another sketch is forthcoming—although one you would hardly care to fault. All the same, some of the material skirts perilously close to becoming schmaltzy, like the anecdotes about Bobby Darin’s last days with cardiac problems and his soulful musings from a terminal hospital bed.

Try as he may, Mr. Peterson’s imitations of the singing styles of his seven stars never quite distinguishes among them, with the possible exception of Anthony Newley. Here, the performer’s British accent was better able to reproduce the vocal quality of the author of  Stop the World I Want to get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd (with Leslie Bricusse). But these are minor notes in an otherwise riveting performance.

Something should be said for the capable assists given Mr. Peterson by co-director Semina DeLaurentis, a three-piece backup of Piano, Bass, Synthesizer, and Percussion under the direction of Musical Director Richard DeRosa, accomplished Lighting Design by Richard Latta, and an attractive set by Erik Diaz.

All things considered, Song Man, Dance Man stands out as one of the most memorable shows this reviewer has seen at Seven Angels Theatre.

Song Man, Dance Man opened at the Seven Angels Theatre, 1 Plank Road, Waterbury, CT 06705, on November 5, and runs until November 29, 2009. Tickets are available for matinee and evening performances by calling the box office at 203-757-4676, or online at sevenangelstheatre.org.      

 

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